In response to a 24 October editorial of the Daily Tribune, Senator Panfilo Lacson’s camp wrote that the legislator is not ready to give the House of Representatives’ version of the General Appropriations Bill the benefit of the doubt regarding the measure being free of pork.
Lacson had assailed as illegal, the alleged revisions made after the bill passed the final reading and approval at the Chamber.
The action taken by the House small committee to introduce “post-approval” amendments into the GAB constituted “a violation of the highest law of the land: the 1987 Constitution, particularly Art. VI, Sec. 26, Paragraph 2, which states: ‘Upon the last reading of a bill, NO AMENDMENT THERETO SHALL BE ALLOWED, and the vote thereon shall be taken immediately thereafter, and the yeas and nays entered in the Journal,’” the letter said.
The amendments through the “small committee/group” could have been made before third and final approval of the bill had the House extended its session by a few days, or reserved later for the bicameral conference committee with the Senate, according to Lacson’s letter.
The solon’s group added that after the House approved its version of the budget on third and final reading last 16 October, the Chamber continued to tackle “institutional amendments” to its bill via the interim body.
“Some House members may argue this is not illegal. But definitely this is a violation of the four-phase budget process that involves Preparation (by the executive), Authorization (by Congress), Execution (by the executive), and Accountability — as the executive cannot participate in the authorization phase that is the domain of Congress,” it added.
House bill polished
Forming of the body was meant to finetune the bill that will be delivered on 28 October to the Senate but House Appropriations Committee Eric Yap admitted P20 billion worth of institutional amendments in the GAB which are mostly increases in the allocation for the eventual procurement of the vaccine against the coronavirus disease 2019.
Senators which included Lacson, nevertheless, supported the realignment in preparation for the substantial expenses for the vaccine purchases.
“How can there be a presumption of regularity for the finalized bill of the House when it involves an action that is unconstitutional, plain and simple?” the office of the legislator asked.
The letter stated “there is no reason to ‘play for exposure’ as you put it in your commentary, with irregularities in the budget process having occurred before the nation’s collective eyes.”
Lacson’s camp insisted that although the House of Representatives has yet to transmit its version of the budget bill to the Senate, “it is the duty of senators to examine in the meantime the contents of the National Expenditure Program (NEP), the proposed budget submitted by Malacañang to Congress.”
His office said it was during the examination of the NEP that Lacson and his legislative staff found questionable items in the proposed P666.4-billion budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) — including what would later turn out “to be a whopping half-trillion pesos in lump sums and reappropriated items.”
SC sets guidepost
The Daily Tribune’s editorial pointed to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Benjamin Diokno, when as budget secretary, he explained that items included in the process of crafting the GAB can’t be considered pork.
“These are (funded) projects that are supposed to benefit residents of Congressional districts. They are not pork barrel. Call it (by) any other name, but not pork barrel,” Diokno said.
Diokno made reference to the Supreme Court’s (SC) 2013 ruling that outlawed the Priority Development Assistance Fund which also set the parameters on what constituted pork barrel.
Lacson’s office also underlined the late submission by the DPWH of its proposed budget, on 7 September or 12 days after the deadline for the Executive Department to submit the proposed budget to Congress had lapsed, “mangled the agency’s original budget proposal, with a pattern of decreases in funding for national projects and increases in funding for local projects.”
Local infrastructures are suspected as the usual source of pork barrel since these are mostly proposed by legislators to the DPWH.
“The mangling included P67 billion for multi-purpose buildings, along with a uniform appropriation of P1 million for at least 42 congressional districts,” Lacson’s camp noted.
The letter concluded with the statement that the “national budget is the lifeblood of the economy, if not the country itself. While its timely passage is critical in giving the government the needed tools to deal with a pandemic, it must also be free from inefficiency and corruption, especially given the limited resources we have.”